Interesting discussion this morning on Mike and Mike about whether fans’ sentiments should influence sportswriters’ views of certain issues, particularly voting for awards and the Hall of Fame. The prompt for the discussion was an article in USA Today this week by Bob Nightengale. Nightengale said that all-star voting for players previously suspended for PED use – including Nelson Cruz and Melky Cabrera – would be a kind of referendum on whether the fans ultimately care about or forgive PED use.
Greenie introduced the segment by saying that the reason fans don’t get more of what they want from the sports world is that they don’t act like regular consumers. Instead, they act like sheep and sports enterprises respond accordingly. It’s an interesting claim, worthy of a longer discussion. But the premise of the back and forth that followed is that sports writers are more likely to think dispassionately and less likely to be swayed by sentiment and the popular mood in drawing conclusions about whether PED use should affect one’s entry into the Hall of Fame, for example.
Bob Nightengale is a veteran baseball writer. In 1995, he wrote about steroids use in baseball for the LA Times. In the subsequent history of the steroids scandal that article has a kind of fame now both as an early entry in the genre, and because it was essentially ignored.
When in 1998 Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa engaged in their epic parallel assaults on Roger Maris’ single season home run record, one reporter, Steve Willstein, noted the presence of a bottle of Androstenedione in McGwire’s locker (Andro, to be clear, was not banned by MLB at the time, since it had not yet been banned by the FDA). That observation did not open the door to a more searching probe of what major leaguers were doing at the time to improve their strength. Instead, it brought a good deal of opprobrium for Willstein himself, for killing the national buzz that was the McGwire-Sosa homerun chase.
Eventually, the landscape upon which sentiments about steroids/PED use changed profoundly. And many sportswriters and commentators have happily taken up the familiar perch of moral scolds in connection with that issue.
But the notion that sports commentators are better positioned to think dispassionately about these issues in evaluating who should be the MVP, or play in an all-star game or enter the Hall of Fame is a questionable one. They are, like media types more generally, highly susceptible to groupthink, to conventional wisdom in its worst sense, to lazy shortcuts when they don’t want to grapple with complicated data or ideas and when their priority is professional comfort and access. I am generalizing – there are plenty of great, independent-minded, sharp commentators who don’t go along to get along. In the realm of sports, Dan LeBatard is one good example.
Maybe I am in an especially uncharitable mood these days because of the amazing spectacle of highly respected members of the elite liberal media writing truly pathetic hatchet jobs of Glenn Greenwald’s new book about the events surrounding Edward Snowden and the NSA disclosures, No Place to Hide. One of those was penned by the veteran pundit, Michael Kinsley, who skewered Greenwald in the New York Times for daring not to defer to the government in determining whether the public had the right to know about mass invasions of its privacy. Kinsley’s review prompted a strongly worded response from the Times’ own public editor who, embarrassingly, had to explain to Kinsley the purposes of the first amendment and journalists’ responsibility relative to it.
To clarify, Mike and Mike’s position on PED use and Hall of Fame voting is the same as my own. They both think the players should be elected or not based on their performance on the field. If you want to note with an asterisk or whatever those players in the Hall who were associated with such use, fine. And Mike and Mike were not at all pooh-poohing the role that fans might play in influencing voting by sportswriters. Indeed, when it comes to PED use, Mike and Mike (especially Golic) are a breath of fresh (and unsanctimonious) air.
However, the record of baseball writers (and certain commissioners, ahem) when it comes to the so-called steroid era and its aftermath is not the story of a group of dispassionate professionals facing off against a parochial and emotion-driven public. It’s the story of a professional group whose frequent sanctimony reflects its inability to acknowledge fully its own biases and skewed incentives.